- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 23, 2012

BAIKONUR, KAZAKHSTAN (AP) - A Russian spacecraft surged into clear skies over the Central Asian steppe Tuesday, carrying a three-man crew on their way to the International Space Station.

The engines of the Soyuz TMA-06M sent a powerful roar across the tinder-dry countryside of southern Kazakhstan as scheduled in the afternoon to deliver NASA astronaut Kevin Ford and Russians Oleg Novitsky and Yevgeny Tarelkin to the orbiting laboratory.

“I spoke with the astronauts after they reached orbit,” Russian Space Agency chief Vladimir Popovkin said. “They feel well. Everything went fine, despite the windy conditions.”

After a two-day journey, the astronauts will join U.S. astronaut Sunita Williams, Russia’s Yuri Malenchenko and Aki Hoshide of Japan’s JAXA agency.

The crew will face what may be the heaviest workload in the 12-year history of the space station over its first week.

Tasks will include handling the departure of a Dragon cargo vehicle and a spacewalk to carry out repair operations on the station.

Of the three in Tuesday’s takeoff, only Ford has flown in space before. He spent two weeks as pilot of the space shuttle Discovery in 2009 on a mission to transport scientific equipment to the space station.

Tuesday’s launch took place in unseasonably warm conditions and afforded the small crowd of space officials, well-wishers and family members of the astronauts at the viewing platform a clear sight of the rocket disappearing into the distance.

Within a few seconds of the launch, the first set of booster rockets detached as planned in a puff of smoke and fell to earth leaving a streak of black fumes in its wake.

An announcer informed the crowd of the craft’s progress over a loudspeaker. After nine minutes, he announced the Soyuz had reached orbit, prompting a burst of applause for the successful start to the mission.

Televised footage showed the soft toy hippopotamus mascot dangling over the crew floating in weightlessness.

The crew will be tightly packed into the cramped Soyuz for 48 hours before finally docking with the space station.

For the first time since 1984, the manned takeoff took place from the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome’s launch site 31.

The pad that is normally used for such missions_ the one where Yury Gagarin became the first human to travel into space in 1961, is being modernized. Site No. 1, better known as Gagarin’s Start, was last overhauled in 1983.

The need for a back-up launch site became particularly acute with the decommissioning of the U.S. shuttle fleet in 2011, when Gagarin’s Start became the only operating pad available for manned launches to the space station.

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